Modesto police called the attacks cowardly, random and unprovoked.
Two 55-year-old homeless men — severely beaten, bloodied and unconscious — were found lying in public bathrooms at Modesto's Enslen and Graceada parks in June 2008.
Police arrested 23-year-old Michael "Boogie" Anthony Hardwick Jr. of Modesto in the crime. He was sentenced in April to six years in prison.
"They didn't have anything. They were homeless," prosecutor Wendell Emerson said of the victims. "I think it was just a cruel crime where he just picked vulnerable victims who couldn't fight back."
New data released last week show homeless people nationwide were singled out in more than 1,000 attacks over the past 11 years by perpetrators motivated by anti-homeless hostility and a perception of their victims as easy targets.
Last year was the deadliest in a decade for hate crimes against the homeless, with 43 people killed, according to the report by the National Coalition for the Homeless. That's an increase from 27 killings in 2008.
The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group chronicled such brutal crimes as homeless people doused with gasoline and set on fire and others beaten with aluminum baseball bats, golf clubs or pipes. The research showed some assailants killed merely for the sport of it -- a "thrill kill" in police slang.
"It's just a sad commentary," said Brian Miller, a pastor and homeless advocate in Turlock. "What is it in the heart of humanity that you could take someone so down that they're homeless and commit a violent crime against them?"
Three hate crimes highlighted in the report were said to have been committed against homeless people in Merced, Sacramento and Fresno counties during 2009:
Six young men entered a homeless encampment in Merced, with at least one person allegedly punching a homeless man multiple times in the ribs and hitting his girlfriend in the face as she tried to intervene. "They were just picking on anyone they could find," the male victim said.
A Sacramento man who was listening to music alone suffered seizures and a concussion after a group of "thrill seekers" reportedly pummeled and stomped on him as onlookers cheered.
In a story that made national headlines, a Fresno police officer was accused of holding a 52-year-old homeless man's hands behind his back as another officer repeatedly punched him in the face. Bystanders initially had called police to aid the homeless man, who they believed was ill, and the incident was caught on video. The homeless man has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the officers.
Fear of seeing 'face in the mirror'
Neil J. Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said a festering resentment or hatred of the homeless may be driving more people to take action against them.
Donovan said people's economic insecurities -- including worries about possibly finding themselves on the street one day -- can drive them to transfer those frustrations onto the homeless.
"It's the fear of that being your face in the mirror," Donovan said.
Feelings of exasperation against some Modesto homeless played out in front of the Modesto City Council in June, which in a split vote decided to take back McClatchy Square from the homeless who inhabited it. Council members approved a plan restricting use of the downtown park to those who make reservations and pay fees after some downtown business owners complained about public urination, alcohol use, drug dealing and verbal abuse of park visitors.
That debate reflected the struggle of people with good intentions over how to balance the needs of a downtown business community and the challenges presented by the homeless.
Streets aren't always kind
Modesto's streets, however, can be cruel.
On Thursday in Modesto's Moose Park in the La Loma neighborhood, 52-year-old Wesley Raper recalled being hit repeatedly by beer bottles while riding his bike through the streets. Two weeks ago, a cap on his front tooth was knocked loose when he was kicked in the face by a group of drunken men, Raper said.
Georgia Baron, 24, pointed out the scars that mark her knee where teenage boys threw rocks at her as she walked down a Turlock street. Waiting in line for lunch at The Salvation Army center in downtown Modesto, Baron said she's learned not to fight back.
"They did it every day I came by," Baron said. "They were just having fun."
Neither Raper nor Baron reported those incidents to police, which is common, according to the study.
"I took my butt whuppin,' " said Raper, who worked as a manager at Lowe's before he became homeless. "If they shot me, I wouldn't call the cops."
Jeffrey Williams, 47, said he knows how to protect himself but still feels scared living on the streets. A group of men once jumped his friend as the man walked to the store, leaving him lying in the street and bleeding from his head.
"You see a group of people walk toward you and you tense up," Wil- liams said.
About five years ago, Modesto police hired two officers assigned full-time to patrol the homeless downtown.
Sgt. Rick Armendariz said the officers, who ride the streets on bicycles, work to build a rapport with the area homeless and encourage them to report crimes. Those officers also refer people to shelters and programs to deal with mental health and substance abuse problems.
"We know there is crime and violence that occurs that's not being reported," Armendariz said. "(The officers) know a lot of these people by name, and a lot of homeless people know them. They're not triaging it."
On Tuesday, homeless advocates claimed a victory when California legislators passed a bill that would let homeless crime victims use hate-crime statutes to seek justice from their attackers in civil court.
Homeless people brutalized for no reason other than that they live on the street could sue their attacker for enhanced penalties. State law already grants that right for those victimized based on gender, race and other statuses.
The bill awaits Gov. Schwarzenegger's signature.
"The stories of these attacks can break your heart," said the bill's sponsor, Democratic Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal of Long Beach. "The only common threads are merciless cruelty on the part of the attackers, and homelessness on the part of the victims."
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.